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In NPR Interview, Obama Answers Critics Of Iran Nuclear Framework

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

President Obama is answering critics of the nuclear deal with Iran. The president spoke with NPR yesterday in a White House ceremonial room where presidents took their meals in centuries past. Few faced negotiations quite like the one this president wants to finalize.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It involves multiple world powers and political figures. Elsewhere in today's program, we hear the president say how the deal would work. We also asked about a prominent skeptic, the leader of Israel.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has added a demand in recent days. He said that as part of this deal, when it's finalized, Iran should recognize the state of Israel. You're smiling as I say that. Diplomats might see that as an obviously inappropriate demand to make in this negotiation, but it sounds reasonable on its face. Many people will find that to be reasonable. Why not do that?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, let me say this. It's not that the idea of Iran recognizing Israel is unreasonable. It's completely reasonable, and that's U.S. policy. And I've been very forceful in saying that our differences with Iran don't change if we make sure that they don't have a nuclear weapon. They're still going to be financing Hezbollah. They're still supporting Assad dropping barrel bombs on children. They are still sending arms to the Houthis in Yemen that have helped destabilize the country.

INSKEEP: Not only that, the president said there are, quote, "vile anti-Semitic statements that have come out of Iran's regime." The trouble, he said, is getting Iran to address that in a negotiation that has been about something else.

OBAMA: The notion that we would condition Iran not getting nuclear weapons in a verifiable deal on Iran recognizing Israel is really akin to saying that we won't sign a deal unless the nature of the Iranian regime completely transforms. And that is, I think, a fundamental misjudgment. The - I want to return to this point. We want Iran not to have nuclear weapons precisely because we can't bank on the nature of the regime changing.

INSKEEP: The demand that's being made there of course underlies a broader concern that Israelis have. You're suggesting, implying through this nuclear deal, that Israel must live another 10 or 15 years and longer with a country that is fundamentally opposed to the existence of Israel. How should Israelis think about Iran in the years to come?

OBAMA: Well, I think it's important to recognize that there are a whole host of countries in the Middle East that don't yet recognize Israel. You know, Israel has peace treaties with Egypt. It has peace treaties with Jordan. But there are other countries where there are obvious tensions between Israel and the Arab world. Some of those are just outgrowths of anti-Semitic sentiment inside the Arab world. Some of those are related to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and the lack of resolution there. But the most important thing for Israelis is to know that they can defend themselves and that they have America, the world's most powerful country, there to protect them alongside their military and their intelligence operations. And, as I've indicated before, if you look at my track record since I've been in office, we have had as much or greater military cooperation and intelligence cooperation with Israel than any previous administration. We have been steadfast in the defense of Israel when it comes to them defending themselves even when there have been periods of great international controversy. So what I would say to the Israeli people is you are right to be suspicious of Iran. There is no reason why you should let your guard down with respect to Iran. We have to make sure that Israel has the capabilities to protect itself, not only from Iran but also proxies like Hezbollah, but ultimately Iran is deterrable.

INSKEEP: Of the many Republican responses to this agreement, one of the most interesting has come from Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin and possible presidential candidate, who has said in one interview and then expanded in another interview last week his view that on day one of his administration, were he to be elected, he would revoke this deal. He would withdraw from this deal. He said he would do it even if U.S. allies wanted to remain in the deal. If you conclude a deal and Congress has not formalized it, will that, as a practical matter, be within the power of the next president to withdraw from the deal on day one?

OBAMA: Keep in mind, Steve, that there is long precedent for a whole host of international agreements in which there's not a formal treaty ratified by Congress, by the Senate. In fact, the majority of agreements that we enter into around the world...

INSKEEP: Sure.

OBAMA: ...Are of that nature, including those in which we make sure that our men and women in uniform when they're overseas aren't subject to the criminal jurisdiction of those countries. And, you know, I am confident that any president who gets elected will be knowledgeable enough about foreign policy and knowledgeable enough about the traditions and precedents of presidential power that they won't start calling to question the capacity of the executive branch of the United States to enter into agreements with other countries.

If that starts being questioned, that's going to be a problem for our friends and that's going to embolden our enemies. And it would be a foolish approach to take. And, you know, perhaps Mr. Walker, after he's taken some time to bone up on foreign policy, will feel the same way.

INSKEEP: Mr. President, thanks very much.

OBAMA: I enjoyed it very much, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's part of our talk with President Obama yesterday at the White House. There's video of the full conversation at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.